Kevin Cheng  

The Hollywood Design Cycle

December 13th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

At the end of the movie Aliens, we see Sigourney Weaver duelling with the title creature using a large cargo lifter - one which looks remarkably similar to what iVan is using in fact. In the Matrix Revolutions, the city of Zion utilizes similar exoskeletons for manual labour (until, of course, the inevitable invasion).

Hollywood has no shortage of insight into how our future should look and if they seem to be low on ideas, one can always turn their head towards the fanciful futures of Comics and Japanese animation (popularly known as Anime). There too, we can find examples of exoskeletons such as Marvel’s Iron Man, the police officers of Bubblegum Crisis or the body armour of the Guyver.

Looking at the Toyota i-foot, I can’t help but drool over the idea of being in control of a miniature Mechwarrior and pretend I’m in a war torn planet eons from now, equipping my i-foot with a gatling gun and flamethrower. Then I spend a second to think about its actually practical uses - or those it was intended of anyways. The i-foot is advertised as a mobility solution for the disabled. This initially sounds like a fantastic idea. Can’t walk? How about we give you some legs? Sounds great.

Then you try and figure out how this thing goes through regular doorways. How it even opens a door would be interesting. How about the toilet? How much room does it take on a narrow sidewalk in North America (never mind the insanely crowded streets of Tokyo or Hong Kong). What if you become dependent on it - how do you travel with it? How is it transported?

When it comes down to it, wheelchairs are exoskeletons that are incredibly effective. Motorized wheelchairs perhaps even more so but a bipedal walker is actually not all that practical - at least in the size of i-foot.What we’re seeing are designs born out of Hollywood. Let’s call it the Hollywood Design Cycle: Authors or Writers come up with some vision of the future, we are exposed to it en masse; Consumers end up craving that these things become reality (give me my lightsaber already! and my flying car!); Marketers and Engineers start pedalling as fast as they can do give us what we clearly are yearning for; We discover that they are, in fact, not as cool as the movies. Not only because they don’t live up to the Hollywood details but just because they’re not that practical.

The phenomenon goes further than exoskeletons, of course. Science fiction movies such as A.I. and I, Robot (and of course, the books on which they were inspired) see a future of human-like robots. We continue to look towards this dream as some sort of sign that we have arrived at the future. Yet the most efficient and effective robots have been around for decades and they are on factory floors constructing the cars we drive or even, to an extent, the doughnuts we eat.

The same can be said for user interfaces. Minority Report, The Matrix Reloaded even Jurassic Park (”I know this! This is Unix!”) features appealing, but ultimately not too useful interfaces.

Thinking out of the box is no longer limited to thinking outside of our constraints. Hollywood has introduced a different box within which many designers think - one which constrains our vision to what looks best on screen instead of what works best for the problem we’re trying to solve. The best exoskeletons, best robots, best designs are often those that don’t look anything like Hollywood.

5 Responses to “The Hollywood Design Cycle”
Bob Salmon wrote:

You mean that the i-Foot wasn’t invented so that I can get some friends together and do YMCA really properly? D’oh!

In Scandinavia there’s a standard way to check if a car handles well, which is to do a violent swerve at reasonable speed a.k.a. the Moose Test (avoid a moose loose aboot the rood). Seeing as you’re talking about acceptance criteria for exo-skeletons etc, I’d like to suggest the YMCA test. Obviously there will be wannabes who suggest lesser things like Saturday Night or Agado, but for me YMCA is the acid test.

Not only does it have to look good on film, it has to look good while I’m singing and dancing. If a robotic gizmo can help me do that, then that would be impressive.

Dave wrote:

hmmm? interesting thoughts …
Personally, I think Hollywood has design right. Yes it is about making it look good for the screen, but hey, its about making it look good. That’s my first point.

My 2nd point is more about hollywood not needing usability criteria, or even addressing them. Since they don’t have to build anything, they get to explore avenues that we can’t in the “real world”. This sets up quite a great laboratory for us to be inspired from and apply to our real world criteria. This isn’t a bad thing at all.

Last point and most important one:
Designing for the screen means that what you have needs to tell a story. Sometimes it is just a plot-hole filler as in “Swordfish” where it fails miserably, sometimes it is a character as in Minority Report where it succeeds immensely well. What I like about the “character” interface is that it most fits what I think should be an IxD perspective (thanks for this article as I never was able to get to this before). If IxD is interaction, it implies a conversation or dialog. The product needs to be a character that we engage and converse with and hollywood can do a great job with this type of design because the designs HAVE to fit that role if they are to be compelling for the screen.

I really like this thought of interface as character and it is something we should all strive for.

Now, the i-foot is a great example of design w/o intent. Can I create a biped interface? that is probably the main point of the design. Then learn if there are advantages over this design over other designs? Does this for example have advantages over a wheelchair or segway? Stairs, maybe? Rough terrain?

I do think that your questions are very valid, but I also think that you are over judging the outcome a bit much. Its not like Toyota is putting this thing on the market. Only segway would make that horrible mistake. ;)

Kevin Cheng wrote:

I never claimed the designs for the screen need to be usable. That was basically my point, in fact, that they deliberately are not made to be usable but just visually appealing.

The problem is that it seems many “innovative” interfaces are looking at these as models of what we should strive for instead of recognizing that the most useful future innovations may be less flashy and less obvious.

As to whether Toyota is putting the i-foot on the market, I doubt that they’re making it just for fun. They certainly WANT to put it out on the market.

Toyota will present this proposal for a new type of mobility at EXPO 2005 AICHI, JAPAN.

Research costs money and research is where the new interfaces, robots, exoskeletons, etc. come form. My point is, if you’re going to spend money researching the next big thing, you should be looking beyond Hollywood.

David Heller wrote:

2 things … 1. your remember personal info STILL isn’t working on my firefox installation. Ugh!

2. and more importantly … We should never limit ourselves to a single source of inspiration. So I agree there. I think we disagree on the usefulness of Hollywood for an inspiration source and I was trying to point out that actually its expertise in designing objects to be “characters” is something that the non-Hollywood community could actually learn a ton from. Or I would say, I think we have a lot more to learn from Hollywood than your article suggests in how it is trying to push us away from Hollywood. Out of all the non-design sources for inspiration out there, I’d say Hollywood, Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are all great places for us to keep a strong eye on.

Bob Salmon wrote:

Another thing that doesn’t appear to be working is the abbr tag, which I think was brought up a few months ago for universal access goodness. (It’s not listed as a permitted tag, and if you try it the tag disappears.)


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?